Sorry, Walt, but a Mickey Mouse feature story won’t land me a job

One of the sessions I was most excited for was “Avoiding the Mickey Mouse Feature Story,” led by High Point University’s Bobby Hayes. And while I do love everything Disney, including Mickey himself, this session was one of the personal highlights thus far in the convention. The session began with a distribution of gifts from Hayes, as he passed around four different feature stories and asked our opinions on them. The first three showed us what not to do in a feature story: a lack of storytelling, interviews and personality was present in each of these pieces, leaving us all struggling to finish them. Then, the last one we read was like a breath of fresh air – the author showed us what ingredients go into making a feature story excellent.

Dubbing it “a movie on paper,” Hayes explained that feature writing must be complex, use active descriptions and be a part of multiple scenes, regardless of whether the writer was physically present or not. A common misconception about profile stories in feature writing is that it’s all about the main character, therefore, only the main character needs to be interviewed. The truth could not be more opposite. Hayes encouraged the session attendees to interview multiple people, because on many occasions, the best interviews don’t come along until several interviews have already occurred. He also stressed that journalists should not feel obligated to include each and every interview: only pick out the really good stuff and the best storytelling quotes that will carry your feature piece smoothly.

Hayes also encouraged us to tease and get physical with our readers … through our language. A well-written feature story will use active descriptions and sensory language, and teasing the reader by not revealing the end or punchline prematurely is a great tool in taking a feature story to the next level. After all, said Hayes, what great film reveals the ending in the first few scenes? Even more important than the lede in feature writing is the ending: make sure the writing has ended the story with a powerful bang.

Some of Hayes’ other pieces of advice include:

  • Put your character in motion in your story.
  • Develop tension and conflict.
  • Do more interviews than you feel is necessary, but don’t make your story too cluttered.
  • Choose only the best storytelling quotes.
  • Play a little; features writing shouldn’t follow an exact formula in structure.
  • Find what makes your main character “tick.”
-Ashley Fahey
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